The Frugal Diner

When a UT grad student heard about how hard it was to live on food stamps, she put her money where her mouth is.

The Frugal Diner

Megan Reiss watched Washington’s politics-as-usual with disdain. As Congress debated steep cuts to America’s food stamps—now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP—the political theatrics had become, to Reiss, histrionic on both sides of the aisle.

To protest the cuts, Democratic congressmen took the “SNAP challenge” to eat for a week on $4.50 a day (the amount allotted to SNAP recipients). Some failed spectacularly. Meanwhile a Republican staffer, protesting the protests, crowned himself the “Undisputed SNAP Challenge Champion” after eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, pasta, and popsicles for a week.

The commentary, to the LBJ School of Public Affairs PhD student, was laughable.

Reiss wondered if was it possible to live off such a small amount of food. And was it possible to stay healthy, or were the country’s 47 million food-stamp recipients doomed to a pasta-and-popsicle diet? She decided to take the SNAP challenge herself.

 “I wanted to engage in a subject where people are directly and very obviously affected by policy.”

Reiss calls it a character flaw: She hates asking for help, from the government or anyone else. Raised on self-reliance, she moved with her military family all over the West. There was nothing trendy about her family’s vegetable gardens. As a kid, she ate the duck and venison her father and brother shot until, in an act of rebellion, Reiss went vegetarian at age 10. That was just fine with her parents, but she would have to cook for herself. Undeterred, Reiss kept up her vegetarian diet for a dozen years.

“I can turn into a dog with a bone,” Reiss laughs at her own tenacity, sitting at a table just cleared of two meticulously-tabbed dissertation binders. Researching nuclear non-proliferation policy, “it’s too easy not to think about other people,” she says. “I wanted to engage in a subject where people are directly and very obviously affected by policy.” To better understand the lives of people receiving food assistance, she set her challenge for a month to ensure “more of a lifestyle change” and expand her empathy, she says. “I wanted a better glimpse than what I had.”

So she started 2013 by slashing her food budget in half and beginning the challenge.

Reiss had advantages: her established kitchen, her car for shopping, her proximity to fresh produce. Even so, the already-frugal student “had to plan like crazy.” She scoured the web for coupons.

chopping_webTo stay healthy, Reiss sought out hearty, meaty vegetables like eggplant and borrowed ideas from peasant foods she’d tried while traveling: goulash from Hungary, coq au vin from France. She posted the adapted recipes to her blog.

Reiss didn’t lose or gain weight that month. She had no moments of hunger or panic. And she never went over budget.

But what she saved in money, she paid for in time. Reiss spent two to three hours per week on grocery trips, and at least an hour cooking each day. One night, she couldn’t afford milk for cream-of-tomato soup. No cream meant more work: roasting tomatoes for 45 minutes and simmering them another half hour. Once blended, the soup looked rich and orangey, as if heaped with half-and-half. Reiss triumphantly dubbed it “the creamiest creamless tomato soup.” But she notes, “Imagine if you’re a single mom. An hour of undivided cooking time?”

And while budget and body did fine, Reiss’ social life suffered. Going out, her friends ate and drank while Reiss sipped water. She stayed home to cook and stayed in at night. Reiss’ attempt to engage with a public policy was keeping her decidedly stuck in the private sphere. “For a population who’s not capable of spending money in these social environments,” she says, “I can picture it being entirely segregating.”

She told her church pastor about her isolation. When a friend offered to pay, he said to accept, challenge or no. “That’s what people are supposed to do in communities.” Being part of a community, he pointed out, meant giving and accepting help. So she softened her hard line on help and a few times, said yes to free food.

She gave out food, too. To beat back loneliness, she’d invite friends for dinner, multiplying her recipes. No huge sacrifice, she says, because per-person costs shrink with bigger meals. One favorite was winter curry with brown rice. That night, food stamps were the last thing on anyone’s mind.

With a little help from her friends, Reiss ended the month with $7.40 left over. This May, she published an e-cookbook with 65 of her cheap and healthy recipes. She donates proceeds from The Frugal Diner to Operation Homefront, a Texas-based nonprofit that assists military families, who often rely on food stamps. For millions of people, after all, the SNAP challenge lasts much longer than a month.

From top: Reiss with pasta alla norma; chopping eggplants and cooking the sauce

Credit: Anna Donlan


Tags: , , , ,


1 Comment

Post a Comment